’08 Preview: Far from peaceful times in Cincy

As recently as 2005, the Cincinnati Bengals were the talk of the league, skyrocketing to the top of the AFC North and making their first playoff appearance in a staggering 15 years.

Two disappointing seasons and a host of bad press later, their return to disparity has been just as swift. Now Cincinnati is largely dismissed as long on character concerns and individual stars but short on team – a bunch of also-rans squandering a great deal of talent.

Following a bitterly disappointing 7-9 season – the first sub-.500 showing in coach Marvin Lewis’ five years at the helm – the offseason has been anything but peaceful.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

Wide receiver Chad Johnson, with four years remaining on his contract, has demanded a trade and dragged the organization through the mud in the process. Though they waived receiver Chris Henry in April after his fifth arrest since 2005, the Bengals remain the league’s bad-boy poster children.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan and linebackers coach Ricky Hunley were fired, and fixing that side of the ball remains the primary concern. Mike Zimmer replaces Bresnahan as Lewis’ third defensive coordinator.

The Bengals’ biggest free-agent acquisition was pass-rush end Antwan Odom. For the fourth year in a row, they used their first-round draft pick on a defensive player in USC linebacker Keith Rivers.

Offense

Lewis believes the Bengals’ offense has gotten overly “cute” by passing too much and ignoring a running game that was the league’s 11th best in 2005.

Coordinator Bob Bratkowski’s task is to run the ball more productively, which will keep the offense on the field and the defense off of it by converting third downs and controlling the clock. Quarterback Carson Palmer can’t win every game on his own.

Defense

Here they go again. The Bengals will enter the season determined to improve a defense that has ranked 28th, 19th, 28th, 30th and 27th, respectively, in the league under Lewis.

Rivers will be counted on to contribute right away. The team’s previous two first-round selections, cornerbacks Leon Hall (’07) and Johnathan Joseph (’06), have already developed into starters.

The book on Stacy Andrews

A rival sizes up the Bengals’ versatile, massive offensive lineman:

“You’ve got to understand that the game is still new to him. He is not just a big, slow-footed guy who engulfs you. He is mobile. And then he can strike you with his timing and the explosion he generates in his hips.

“His best football is ahead of him as an offensive lineman. I’ve wondered why they haven’t tried him at three-technique (over the center on defense). With that type of punch and athleticism, he might be better than some of the three-technique guys around the NFL. He has so much quickness and explosiveness for a man his size (6-foot-7, 342 pounds).

“One thing is for sure: He gets better and better with each rep he gets. The only chance you have to beat him is because of his inexperience.”

Bottom line

Just about anywhere else in the league, Lewis’ job might be on the line with a five-year record of 42-38. Not in Cincinnati, though. The Bengals clearly remain his team.

A talented offense needs to do better with the basics – running the ball and converting on third down – but the Bengals always have a chance with the elite Palmer at quarterback. The defense needs to return to its takeaway ways and develop a personality.

In a tough AFC North, no team looks prepared to run away from the pack. The Bengals were down in 2007 and still finished with seven victories; nine could win the division this time around.

SN prediction: 10-6, second in AFC North.

Chick Ludwig covers the Bengals for the Dayton Daily News and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008